While many think of actions such as the imposition of ashes, signing with the cross, foot-washing, and the use of incense is something that only Roman Catholics or high church Episcopalians do. There has been a move among Protestant churches, including United Methodists to recover these more multisensory ways of worship. This is in keeping with a growing recognition that people have multiple ways of learning, worshiping and praying.
Worship that is oriented to the intellect or to the emotions, both interior, leaves out those who engage in prayer through vision, smell, touch, movement, and so forth. We are increasingly aware that people are formed in faith when practices become embedded in memory, nerves, muscles and bone through sensory engagement.
United Methodists have had resources for worship that include the imposition of ashes since 1979 when Ashes to Fire was published as Supplemental Worship Resource 8. This practice became part of our official worship resources in 1992 when General Conference adopted The United Methodist Book of Worship.
“’Efer’ is the word most frequently used in the OT to designate the substances remaining after combustion has occurred…as a result of ritual sacrifices. Ashes are often mentioned in connection with dust and sackcloth as signs of mourning, grief, or [repentance]. The application of ashes to the head and body at times of personal and national crisis, often accompanied by fasting and indicated penitence. We find examples of the solemn use of ashes throughout the Bible.
Those who had fallen into what the early church considered serious sin—everything from committing adultery to serving in the military to performing magic and occult practices—after confessing that sin, were enrolled in an “order of penitents” until they had made restitution.
In many ways, they were treated similarly to converts preparing for baptism, as they sat separately from the rest of the congregation, sometimes dressed in special clothing, and did not participate in the celebration of the Eucharist. Also, they wore ashes on their heads, drawing from the biblical precedent and imagery of verses such as Numbers 19:9,17; Hebrews 9:13; Jeremiah 6: 26; Isaiah 58, Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:6; Matthew 6:1-6, 11:21, Luke 10:13, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10. As you can see, there is a long list of ashes in worship and atonement.
Many of these Scriptures focus on the need for repentance of the heart resulting in justice for the oppressed and mercy for the poor. The later section is the imposition of ashes, with the reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. And the third is the celebration of Holy Communion. As we come forward to receive the oil and ash, conscious of our own mortality and painfully aware that, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn once said, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” the grace of God is displayed to the penitent believers as greater than all our sin.
The imposition of ashes emphasizes a dual encounter: we confront our own mortality and confess our sin before God in our collective worship through our faith in Jesus Christ. In this first Sunday of Lent, we have remaining the better part of our 40-day journey toward Easter to prepare our hearts, minds and souls.
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